Leo Fender: An Inventor Who Transformed Popular Music

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Essential Question

Who was Leo Fender, what iconic musical instruments did he invent, and how did his inventions transform musical instrument design and popular music?

Overview

In this lesson, students will be introduced to inventor Leo Fender and explore his lasting importance to popular music and culture. 

In 1950, the first commercially available, mass-produced, solid-bodied electric guitar was introduced, the Fender Esquire. The Esquire’s brand name, Fender, came from its inventor, Leo Fender. That same year, the Broadcaster, a new model based on the Esquire with some additions, was released. After the musical instrument company Gretsch complained that the model name was infringing on their line of “Broadkaster” drums, the guitar’s name was changed to “Telecaster” in 1951–Fender sought to relate their guitar to the new technology, and surging popularity, of television. The success of the Fender Telecaster, as well as the other guitars and innovations Leo would create throughout his life, soon made his instruments ubiquitous in studios and on stages around the world. In all, Leo Fender’s inventions transformed popular music and culture.

Born in 1909 in Anaheim, California, Clarence Leonidas “Leo” Fender showed an early interest in electronics. Through his uncle’s job managing an automotive service shop, Leo was introduced to all sorts of random electronic components. In particular, Leo was fascinated that his uncle had built a radio from spare parts, noting years later that hearing music blaring out of the device profoundly inspired him. He began tinkering, and even though Leo had never taken an electronics course and would receive no formal training, the teenager soon began repairing radios while still living at home.

After graduating from college with an accounting degree and starting a career in the field, Leo was approached by a local Southern California bandleader and asked if he could build a public address (PA) system to help amplify his band during their shows at venues in Hollywood. Even though PA technology was in its infancy in the late 1920s, Leo accepted the challenge and soon built several systems. Losing multiple accounting jobs and struggling to find work in the mid-1930s during the Great Depression, Leo borrowed $600 and opened his own radio repair shop located in his hometown of Fullerton, California. At “Fender’s Radio Service,” musicians and band leaders came to Leo for PA systems and he started building amplification for acoustic guitars and electric lap steel guitars.

During WWII, Leo met and teamed-up with inventor and guitarist, Clayton Orr “Doc” Kauffman to design and build musical instruments. For the first couple years, their company, K & F Manufacturing Corporation, patented a number of devices, like electronic pickups and amplifiers. The success of these early inventions convinced Leo by 1946 that building and selling musical instruments and amplifiers would be much more profitable than doing radio repair work. With Doc deciding to end their business partnership, Leo renamed his company, soon settling on the Fender Electric Instrument Company, more commonly-known simply as Fender.

After its invention in the early 1950s, the Fender Telecaster soon caught-on with musicians. In a few short years, Leo would invent the Fender Stratocaster, employing all of the modifications and improvements that guitarists had conveyed to him when he asked how they liked the Telecaster. Although the Telecaster had been a hit and continues to be manufactured to this day, the Stratocaster transformed the music instrument industry. It became the standard for electric guitar design and sound. And soon Leo would do the same for bass players.

In 1951, Fender premiered the Precision Bass. It was aptly named because, in comparison to its acoustic and fretless elder (the upright double bass from the violin family), this revolutionary electric and fretted bass guitar provided greater “precision” with intonation and featured onboard electronics for immediate amplification when plugged in. Again, Leo’s invention changed the industry and the Fender Precision Bass, like its six-string relative the Stratocaster, became the standard for electric bass guitar design and sound.

As Leo’s instruments became more popular, his company needed more employees to build the instruments. Various components make up a guitar, and one of the most important is the electric pickups–a device which converts vibrations from the instrument’s strings to an electrical signal that is amplified. In the mid-1950s, Leo hired Abigail Ybarra to work at Fender and soon she was on the team assembling pickups to be installed in the guitars. Abigail was perfect for the skilled and meticulous work involved in winding the metal wire that was housed inside a pickup. She would work at Fender for over fifty years. In time, Abigail would be celebrated in her own right for her work as a master pickup winder and for her unique contribution to the sound of Fender guitars.

When the electric guitar-driven Rock and Roll boom of the 1950s and Beatlemania in the 1960s led to an explosion of interest in playing a musical instrument, Fender experienced tremendous growth. Its instruments were considered a benchmark of excellence in design and build. Additionally, the instruments became a signature, and sought-after, sound in popular music. The hallmark of a professional musician was stepping into a studio or on a stage with a Fender instrument. With this growth, Leo usually worked longs hours, and often seven days a week. Exhausted and experiencing health-concerns due to his taxing schedule, Leo sold Fender to the Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc. (CBS) for $13 million in 1965.

Although restricted by a ten-year non-compete clause in his sale of Fender to CBS, Leo continued to lead and innovate within the musical instrument marketplace. He founded CLF Research in 1966 and was soon investing in and designing instruments for a new musical instrument company, Musicman. Leo eventually parted ways with Musicman in the 1970s but not before inventing guitar models and electronic components that are highly-regarded as industry standards and are still in production today.

Leo formed a new company with his former partner at Fender, George Fullerton, in 1979. Taking the names of its two founders (George and Leo), G&L Musical Instruments found Leo continuing his passionate pursuit of invention. Ensconced in his onsite laboratory, Leo tinkered with a multitude of new ideas, resulting in inventive new guitar designs, electronics, and hardware. With innovative vision and the stewardship of a trusted team of colleagues, G&L products illustrated that Leo’s inventiveness knew no bounds and that he was always seeking new technical discoveries that would better serve musicians. The company continues to produce high-quality instruments that are celebrated within the industry and prized by musicians all around the world, and from a factory in Fullerton, CA on the now-named Fender Avenue.

Leo Fender would work at G&L until his death on March 21st, 1991. He was working in his lab at the company’s headquarters until the day before he died. He had just completed work on a G&L prototype and was innovating until the end. Although Leo never learned to play the many instruments he had invented, his creations transformed popular music and are the templates for design excellence in the industry he lead and shaped for decades. A self-made engineer, legendary inventor, and constant tinkerer, it is said that he was buried wearing his plastic pocket protector.

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Objectives

Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge)
    • Many of the iconic musical instruments Leo Fender invented
    • The lasting impact and legacy of Leo Fender’s inventions on musical instrument design and popular music
    • The contributions of Abigail Ybarra and Josefina Campos to the sound of Fender guitars
    • Key historical events in Leo Fender’s life
    • Leo Fender’s connection to his hometown, Fullerton, California
  2. Mastery Objective:
    • Students will be able to identify iconic musical instruments invented by Leo Fender, explain Leo Fender’s legacy on musical instrument design and popular music, and describe Abigail Ybarra and Josefina Campos’s contributions to the sound of Fender guitars by viewing and examining various media and documents.

Activities

 

Motivational Activity:

  1. Show Image 1, Fender Instruments. Ask students:
    • What do you know about the invention of the electric guitar?
    • Are you familiar with the musical instruments in this image?
    • What similarities and differences do you notice between these instruments when you compare and contrast them?
    • Do you know the brand name of the instruments? What might be the significance of the brand name?

Procedure:

  1. Pass out Handout 1 – Vocabulary Terms. Tell students to review the vocabulary terms and then ask students to answer the question for each term as a class.
  2. Pass out Handout 2 – Leo Fender Timeline to each student. Ask students to take turns reading each entry as a class. After students have read the timeline, ask them to write three words that they feel describe Leo Fender and one question that they have or something that they are wondering about Leo.
  3. Have students share their three words and their question with a partner. Then tell students they will be referring to their words and questions at the end of the lesson and to save their work.
  4. Show Image 1 once again. Ask students:
    • Where might these musical instruments have been invented and tested?
    • What might be the name for a space where things are invented?
  5. Share with students the video, “Leo Fender’s Lab.” (Note to teachers: this is an offsite video, we suggest loading the video before class to avoid any delays or showing advertising during class.) Then ask students:
    • What stood out to you about Leo’s lab?
    • Thinking back to the Leo Fender Timeline handout, where was Leo’s lab located in his later years? What do you know about the company and where it is located?
    • How might Leo’s lab represent how he was a “person driven by this need to create something”?
    • Might his lab reflect his personal habits for how he needed to do his best work?
    • What are your personal habits for doing your best work?
    • How do you organize yourself to get the best results when you start an assignment or a new project?
  6. Pass out Handout 3 – My Perfect Workspace. Have students sketch on the handout their perfect workspace using the grid. (If needed, share with students the video, “How to Design your Room Floor Plan Step by Step,” which introduces the idea of drawing a “bird’s eye view” and can be used for a room sketch or the scale drawing. This is an offsite video, we suggest loading the video before class to avoid any delays or showing advertising during class.)
  7. After finishing their workspace, have students share their drawings and describe the details to a partner. Then have the class come back together as a large group, and ask students:
    • How is your perfect workspace the same or different than Leo Fender’s Lab?
    • Why do you think that Leo arranged his space the way he did?
  8. Remind students that, as outlined on the Leo Fender Timeline handout, Leo went to work in his lab at G&L Musical Instruments every day up until the day before he died. His lab has been left untouched and in the same condition as he left it. The lab has received visitors from around the world who want to spend some time in Leo’s creative space. Ask students:
    • Why do you think that Leo’s lab has been left in place for so long?
    • Why might someone want to visit the lab?
    • What might you experience and learn by visiting the lab?
    • After seeing the video, how might you imagine Leo tinkering with electric guitar parts and inventing in that space?
  9. Tell students that they will be discussing how electric guitars are manufactured. Ask students:
    • How do you think electric guitars are manufactured once they have been invented?
    • Might there be differences between how electric guitars were manufactured in the 1950s compared to today? What might some of those differences be? (Guide students to recognize that a significant portion of the manufacturing back in the 1950s, and for the next few decades, was by hand with the use of machines, not computerized automation, as is becoming much more commonplace today.)
  10. Pass out Handout 4 – Abigail Ybarra. Have students read silently or take turns reading the paragraphs. (As an alternative, you may read the page aloud to students.) Ask students:
    • Had you ever heard of Abigail Ybarra?
    • What was Abigail’s role with Fender?
    • What unique assets did Abigail bring to her job?
    • What unique skills and knowledge did she acquire from her decades-long career?
    • Who trained Abigail and how did she pass along her skills and knowledge?
    • What are Abigail’s contributions to Leo Fender’s inventions?
    • Why do you think that Abigail became so well known? Do you think she was always well known?
    • What is Abigail’s legacy with Fender musical instruments and electric guitar manufacturing in general?
  11. Share with students the video, “Josefina Campos at Fender.” (This is an offsite video, we suggest loading the video before class to avoid any delays or showing advertising during class.) Ask students:
    • How do you think Josefina feels, knowing that the pickups she builds are cherished and appreciated by so many musicians and music fans?
    • How has Josefina carried on the legacy of Abigail’s contributions to Fender pickups?
    • What might be the legacy of Josefina’s contributions to Fender musical instruments and electric guitar manufacturing in general?
    • Considering the handout and these videos, what have you noticed about this work at Fender and the staff who wind pickups?

Summary Activity:

  1. Have students refer back to the words and question that they wrote at the beginning of the lesson, then ask students:
    • Would they still use these words to describe Leo Fender?
    • Are there new words that they would use to describe him?
    • Was their question about Leo Fender answered?
    • Do they have any other questions about him?
  2. Writing Activity: Write a Friendly Letter to Leo and let him know what you learned about his life, inventions, workspace, and legacy. Letters to Leo Fender can be sent care of G&L Musical Instruments, home of Leo Fender’s lab. If you would like to send student letters to G&L, write a cover letter and be sure to read student letters before sending. (Note to teacher: information on writing a Friendly Letter can be found here. This is an offsite video, if showing to students, we suggest loading the video before class to avoid any delays or showing advertising during class.) Student letters to should be addressed to:

Student Letters to Leo Fender
℅ Fullerton Museum Center
301 N Pomona Ave
Fullerton, CA 92832
Or
℅ G&L Musical Instruments
2548 Fender Avenue
Fullerton, CA 92831

Extension Activities:

  1. Illustrated Timeline Presentation: Pass out Handout 5 – Leo Fender Infographic. Students create a collaborative timeline of Leo’s life. Organize students into pairs and assign each group one of the Leo Fender Timeline entries to illustrate. When students are finished illustrating, have students order themselves with their illustrations chronologically and share their timeline entries. Please consider videotaping and sharing your class timeline presentation with info@teachrock.org. This activity will also make a great classroom display.

Standards

Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading

  • Reading 1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
  • Craft and Structure 4: Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas 7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
  • Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity 10: Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing

  • Production and Distribution of Writing 4: Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
  • Research to Build and Present Knowledge  9: Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language

  • Language 1: Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.
  • Language 2: Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing.
  • Language 3: Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listing.
  • Vocabulary Acquisition and Use 4: Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues, analyzing meaningful word parts, and consulting general and specialized reference materials, as appropriate.
  • Vocabulary Acquisition and Use 5:  Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in a word meaning.
  • Vocabulary Acquisition and Use 6: Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when encountering an unknown term important to comprehension or expression.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening

  • Comprehension & Collaboration 1: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
  • Comprehension & Collaboration 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
  • Presentation of Knowledge 4: Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • Theme 2: Time, Continuity, and Change
  • Theme 3: People, Place, and Environments
  • Theme 7: Production, Distributions, and Consumption
  • Theme 8: Science, Technology, and Society

National Standards for Music Education – National Association for Music Education (NAfME)

Core Music Standard: Responding

  • Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators’ and/or performers’ expressive intent.
  • Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.

Core Music Standard: Connecting

  • Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.